Jeremiah Chamberlain was born on January 5, 1794, the son of a Revolutionary War colonel named James Chamberlain. Young Jeremiah grew up at "Swift Run," the family farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He prepared at a classical school in York County before attending Dickinson College, where he graduated in 1814. In 1817 he was a member of the first graduating class of Princeton Theological Seminary, and upon his return to Carlisle, was ordained by the Carlisle Presbytery. Chamberlain spent the next year performing missionary work in the Southwest. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1818 and began preaching in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
In 1822, he accepted the presidency of the struggling Centre College in Danville, Kentucky; he remained at the college for three years and helped to establish a more solid foundation for the school economically and academically. He left to accept the presidency of the College of Louisiana in Jackson, Louisiana; again, his tenure at that institution lasted only three years. Chamberlain resigned in 1828 to establish his own academy, but two years later he convinced the Mississippi Presbytery to establish a new college in Lorman. Thus he became Oakland College's first president in 1830, and served the school until his death in 1851. Oakland College closed at the start of the Civil War, and failed to reopen after the end of the hostilities. In 1871 the Oakland campus was sold to the state of Mississippi and Alcorn A&M College, named in honor of Governor James Alcorn, was established on the site. Thus in 1878 it became the first land-grant college for African-Americans in U.S. history. Oakland College was resurrected in 1879 at nearby Port Gibson as Chamberlain-Hunt Academy, a Presbyterian preparatory school; much of the college's scientific apparatus and library, including Chamberlain's books and papers, were removed to the new location.
Chamberlain's death has been the topic of speculation. What is known is that on the night of September 5, 1851, he was stabbed to death in front of his home on the Oakland campus by a local landowner named George Briscoe. Several witnesses saw Briscoe stop at the gate of Chamberlain's home; the president went out to meet him, and after an exchange of heated words, he was stabbed in the chest. Chamberlain retreated to the house, and died in the arms of his wife minutes later. Briscoe rode off and was not found for several days after the murder; he avoided detection by hiding in the woods near his plantation. Remorseful about his actions, Briscoe poisoned himself and died within a week. The reason for the murder was never ascertained, but it is believed that Briscoe reacted to Chamberlain's staunch anti-slavery and pro union sentiments. The mystery surrounding Chamberlain's death led the 1905 Alumni Directory to state that he had been assassinated.